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Structure fire illuminates difficulty of emergency response in Big Sky



By Emily Wolfe Explore Big Sky Managing Editor

BIG SKY – Just after 11 a.m. on Feb. 19, the Big Sky Fire Department received a report of a structure fire at 545 Grouse Ridge Road, a private home atop a hill south of Ophir School.

The homeowners are new residents to the area, according to Fire Chief Bill Farhat, who spoke to Explore Big Sky from the scene as his crew was putting out the final hot spots. The house was a total loss, he said, but no one was injured.

An investigation by the Gallatin County Sheriff’s Office and Big Sky Fire revealed that an occupant of the home was spray painting a vehicle in the garage in the presence of a ceramic heater. When the occupant attempted to refill the paint canister, the heater ignited the fumes. The occupant attempted to put out the fire before calling 911, delaying the dispatch of firefighters to the incident and allowing the fire to grow.

When the engines from Big Sky Fire responded, at first they struggled to get up the steep, snow drifted road. The first engine had to back up the final hill, Farhat said, and by the time it arrived, the fire had spread from the garage to the house, with smoke showing from the second story eaves.

The second engine got stuck in a deep snowdrift, blocking access to the road for other vehicles and water trucks, said Farhat, who ran from that truck up to the scene. The house did not have automatic fire sprinklers or an auxiliary water supply, and the firefighters mounted an attack as best they could, with what water they had.

Other agencies sent mutual aid assistance, including the Gallatin County Sheriff’s Department, Yellowstone Club Fire Department, Hebgen Basin F.D., Gallatin Gateway F.D., Rae-Sourdough F.D., Central Valley F.D., Manhattan F.D., Bozeman F.D., and Fort Ellis F.D.

Farhat estimated 40 firefighters helped with the incident altogether. At its height, 13 or 14 people were fighting the fire, he said, and the rest were shuttling water up to the scene.

“That was actually the hardest part,” Farhat said, explaining that they actually had to back each truck up the narrow road, because it was too steep to drive up otherwise.

The situation shed light on one of the area’s most serious issues, Farhat said.

Because it is almost entirely privately owned, Big Sky lacks coordinated resources to draw from. The only public roads here are Lone Mountain Trail and Ousels Falls Road. The rest are private, and are maintained and plowed through private contracts.

“There are over 100 homeowners associations, and I wouldn’t know who to get a hold of for that,” Farhat said. So he called the man he knew could help, Jeremy Clack. Clack does contract plowing for the fire department, and he helped clear the road that day.

“We have an emergency of some sort, and we just rely on personal relationships and the kindness of people to help,” Farhat said. “It’s not a city, so we have no one to turn to for assistance, no public works department. We have to be flexible and use our heads and think out of the box.”

Although the house was lost, he commended his team’s work under what he called “trying circumstances.”

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